Couples come to see us to help them resolve their conflicts — not to create growth. But if we stop at attempting to help them resolve their present-day conflicts without moving on to creating growth, we have cheated our clients out of at least half of the potential of couple treatment.
Neurodynamic Couples Therapy is based on a theoretical stance that the conflicts that couples bring to treatment are the ideal circumstances for creating growth in each partner. Their conflicts “serve up on a silver platter” the precise words that are necessary to bring to consciousness unmetabolized feelings about historical traumas, wounds, and losses. The emotional triggers that fuel their conflicts and have been perceived as problematic by the couple are the most accurate and useful windows that exist to expose old nonconscious pain and give it a chance to be heard, understood, validated, and integrated.
Couple therapy creates growth by suspending the push to resolve a conflict until the triggers and words that propel the conflict are fully explored and understood. I have said many times and in many ways that the content of the conflict is not a problem; it is an opportunity to be known and heard. Anxiety often causes a conflict to be prematurely shut down — by either the couple or the therapist. When that happens, the growth-producing potential of the conflict is stifled, and the feelings that are attempting to be metabolized will be recycled into another conflict.
Couples usually come to treatment with substantial shame connected to their conflicts. The popular belief is that someone is at fault, and that there is something wrong with one or both partners, or they wouldn’t be having the conflict. It is often tremendously relieving to both partners to be told by the therapist that their conflicts are their brains’ attempts to move toward growth.
The astute couple therapist listens very closely to the way the conflict is presented and the words both partners use to describe their experience of the conflict. The therapist uses empathic curiosity to help the couple describe the meanings of their triggers and ongoing roles in their conflicts. Hearing themselves and their partner verbalize these meanings and attending feelings ushers in the process for each partner and their relationship together to grow.
Struggling to give up blaming the other for the conflict should be explored and understood as the difficulty that attends taking responsibility for one’s own pain. Growing requires relinquishing the helpless victim position of a child and the wish to redo one’s childhood without pain. We all know that growth is painful, but the couple therapist reassures the partners that what they have already been doing together nonconsciously within their conflicts is creating a situation in which they do not have to face that pain alone. They experience together how fully exploring the feelings contained in their present conflicts is the path to putting the past behind them for good.